Serevi – from detergent bottles to becoming King of Sevens

Date published: August 7 2016

There is a rare and endearing simplicity to Waisale Serevi’s narrative.

The most brilliant Sevens player ever to hold a rugby ball – or an empty detergent bottle, more of which shortly – in his enchanting grasp talks of joy and delight, respect and gratitude, graft and discipline.

In rugby’s pantheon of giants, a special place is reserved for the little Fijian sorcerer. The trademarked King of Sevens.

Serevi’s voyage to greatness began almost forty years ago, at a kitchen sink on the outskirts of Suva.

“In Fiji, there were no washing machines at the time – we washed our clothes with a board, bar of soap and a brush,” Serevi recalls.

“I was washing my school uniform and I heard people shouting, and they were happy. I asked my mum and dad, why are these people happy?

“They told me Fiji have just beaten the British and Irish Lions. And in my mind, the thought came that maybe if I train hard, rugby makes people happy. I want to make the people happy.”

Nobility, perhaps, that could only crystallise in the untainted mind of a nine-year-old boy.

Nonetheless, the pure pursuit of this happiness, the striving to spread joy is a constant theme to Serevi’s story. But first, to the aforementioned detergent bottles.

“When I started playing, there were no rugby balls in our area, so we just used empty detergent bottles, or plastic water bottles,” he says.

“When somebody’s late, or loses, he gets his t-shirt off and we tie it to look like a ball. When we have a rugby ball, it’s much easier to catch than all these plastic bottles; that’s why we’re more skilful than everyone else!”

Of course, this sort of caper was frequently carried out at the expense of schoolwork. And by 1984, it was time for the teenage Serevi to leave the classroom behind.

“I was not academically good; because of rugby, I believe, I failed my exams in elementary school. I couldn’t do it at high school,” he explains.

“My dad asked me, do you want to go back to school? No, I’m going to pursue rugby.

“So I started taking rugby seriously in 1984 – Fiji won the Hong Kong Sevens and I was so happy. For one, maybe two years, I was in full training at my rugby club – Nasinu Rugby Club – but I couldn’t play because I was so small.

“I found Sevens easier – I found it easier to make the big boys look funny on the field. I had the speed, I had the skills, I had the steps; it was much easier to play Sevens. That’s when it all started.”

“It” in this instance being a remarkable sevens career spanning 18 years – the final two as player-coach – and yielding over 1300 points. Serevi played XVs too, and though gained less notoriety therein, still racked up 39 caps and played in four World Cups.

It is often said that the greatest players appear to have more time on the ball than the rest. If that illusion were true, then Serevi operated in a black hole. He was a marvellous cocktail of sheer organic talent and scrupulous hard work.

There were moments on the field where he looked hopelessly cornered, his path to the whitewash swarming with defenders.

But in a flash, off he would set, lurching and weaving and slaloming forth, as though possessed of some invisible power to crumple the limbs and scramble the senses of his opponents.

At times, the desperate lunges of those tasked with shackling him were truly slapstick – they might easily have been set to the Benny Hill theme tune.

“It was more hard work than talent,” Serevi asserts. “You can have a talent, but if you do not train, you don’t have a good attitude and you are not coachable, I think you lose it easily.

“I believe it was through sheer hard work, plus the blessing of whom I believe is the source of power for me, God.

“But God can only help those who help themselves. I did my part, training really hard, I drew the line – friends were good for me, but I drew the line.

“I’d go training every day, I made a lot of sacrifices – I didn’t smoke and I didn’t drink alcohol the years I was playing rugby.

“After we won World Cups, we’d land in Fiji and I’d go and run the next day.”

It was perhaps this physical diligence that allowed Serevi’s legs and lungs to propel him to so many last-gasp tries of such import, and to continue excelling at the very peak of sevens rugby well into his late thirties.

Two years from his fortieth birthday, at the Hong Kong Sevens of 2007, he performed arguably his utmost act of wizardry.

Fiji and New Zealand, the fiercest of rivals on the circuit, were entrenched in the latest in a spree of enthralling battles. As the seconds ticked away, Serevi’s side led 14-12. The All Blacks’ Kevin Yates went haring up the touchline in search of what would prove the winning try.

Serevi trotted back as his team-mates bore down on Yates. The Kiwi was tackled, the ball loose. Two passes later, and it was in Serevi’s grasp, deep in his own 22, a pair of black-shirted aggressors in his path.

“When I run at people, I always look at them in the eyes,” he says.

“Both of them came; there were two of them and I was one – I saw in their eyes as they were arriving that they were gone.”

Slamming his feet into the turf, Serevi rounded one after the other. Then a perfect, flowing pendulum of a dummy saw off Tomasi Cama.

He was collared on halfway, but not felled, floating the ball over his shoulder, where it would find Mosese Volavola.

A beat or two later, there was Serevi again, looping behind Volavola, gathering his offload, scything past the final defender, and strutting towards the uprights, balancing the ball on an upturned palm like a cocktail waiter with a tray of martinis.

It is the enduring image of Serevi. The culmination of year upon year of joyous magic.

“That was the longest run of my life, after all these years playing,” he laughs.

“When I put the ball up on my hand, I was thinking, really? Did I make that? I was 38 years old!”

Those days, the twilight years for Serevi, overlapped the genesis of the global sevens surge, and he was part of the glittering World Rugby (then the International Rugby Board) envoy to make the sport’s case for to the International Olympic Committee.

“I believed rugby needed the Olympics, and the Olympics needed rugby,” he says.

“After we spoke to the IOC, we heard a lot of other sports were listening and they said to us, we support rugby, we believe that rugby should be in the Olympics in 2016.

“They all supported it and I can feel that in that atmosphere, all the people who came said, we believe rugby will make it to the Olympics. And the next year they announced that rugby would be in the Olympics; I’m so proud.”

After an absence of 92 years, Serevi’s ambassadorial pleas helped secure rugby’s long-awaited Olympics return at this month’s Games in Rio.

It is, of course, a drastically different landscape to the one he navigated in the early post-detergent bottle days.

Rugby union remained an amateur occupation until 1995. The Sevens World Series did not come into being until 1999. Until then, the Hong Kong carnival stood alone as the pinnacle for Fiji.

“It was only the Hong Kong Sevens – that’s what we were targeting,” he says. “If Fiji won Hong Kong, it was a good year. If we lost, it was a bad year.

“Before rugby was professional, I was professional, but not paid! I was training more than all these people; that’s why I made them look funny.

“It was just self-motivation for me, now they’re getting paid to train, which is much better than when I was playing. We just played for fun, but we’ve done our part. We led the way for the new generation of players.

“Now a lot of teams are taking it seriously, a lot of money is involved. Before, it was only in fifteens you earned good money. Now you can play sevens, you earn contracts through sevens, it is fast-tracking players into fifteens rugby.

“The players are getting the rewards of all the hard work they are doing. They’re being looked after at their club, by their country.

“It is protecting the players too – I believe it is about time the players are looked after – and it’s getting a lot of interest in other parts of the world.”

Like nothing else, rugby and especially rugby Sevens unites the near-one million Fijians scattered across the archipelago.

Their team is coached by an Englishman, Ben Ryan, who says he can’t pop out for a quiet beer in the capital without being swarmed by supporters, such is the worshipping of rugby and his status on the islands.

Little wonder, since Ryan’s influence, instilling discipline and structure to the raw Fijian flair has helped his team to successive Series championships. With that obsession, and those victories, warns Serevi, comes expectancy.

“Congratulations to Ben Ryan for winning back-to-back World Series, trying to lift his hand up to come and help Fiji, when there’s not a lot of sponsors for him to come down,” he says.

“I think he has done a great job, and for Fiji now with the current team, they are doing well. But I always say to players I play with, or coach, do not rest on playing well.

“They have a great opportunity to win, and the whole of Fiji won’t settle for anything less than gold, because of the past results.”

Serevi is a long way from home now, the ruckus at the kitchen sink and the tossing of detergent bottles.

After retiring, he laid down roots in Seattle, co-founding a business that aims to bring rugby to a new audience, and eager to provide his family with a richer environment to progress.

Indeed one of his daughters, Asinate, has been capped by the USA Eagles, and is a good bet, her father reckons, for a spot in next year’s Women’s World Cup squad.

But like all those Fijians who’ll set down their tools, switch off their machinery and turn on their televisions, Serevi will immerse himself in Fiji’s quest for maiden gold this week.

“I think the last time when we won the World Cup sevens, we had a one week holiday, two-week holiday,” he says.

“To win the gold medal, I don’t know, maybe we’ll have a one or two-year holiday!”

by Jamie Lyall